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Reflecting on Growth and Community: A Main Street Journey

I wrote this quote a few years ago. I’ve written many others, but this one resonates the most with people. They like it because of its business simplicity. For me, it reflects how I operate in my professional life to get things done. This includes my position at the Downtown Hackensack Special Improvement District.

On December 1, I celebrated my first anniversary at the Main Street Business Alliance. Looking back at 2023, I’m very happy with what we have accomplished. I’m not in the accolade business, so this isn’t about soliciting kudos. Rather, I’m writing simply to tell you what I’ve learned and say thank you to the many people who have helped the MSBA be successful this past year.

When the opportunity to lead the MSBA came my way, I initially wondered, “How am I going to manage a Special Improvement District?” But it turns out that my diverse background — from starting up and selling two successful businesses to holding senior executive roles in large, public media and hospitality companies — perfectly prepared me for this role. Strategic planning, leadership, adaptability, grit, and relationship building are just a few of the skills that turned out to be critical in this role.

So, when the board asked me for a plan for the Downtown Hackensack Special Improvement District, I asked them to give me 90 days. In those 90 days, I had meetings with each board member and every stakeholder who would meet with me. From the leadership at City Hall to staff members at the DPW to Pastors at the local church, various people at Hackensack Police Department, the sanitation staff, the Chamber of Commerce, professors at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and more residents and property and business owners on Main Street than I ever imagined. This allowed me to hear every opinion. I sure got an earful! At the end of the 90 days, I presented my strategic plan to the Board of Trustees, and we were off and running.

Our achievements this past year at the MSBA were significant, thanks to unwavering support from the board and everyone at City Hall. This success story is a collective effort, and for that, I extend my heartfelt thanks to all involved.

I thought I’d take a few moments and tell you what I learned (rather, confirmed) this past year. As I reflect on this time, I see how our mission and our values made and continue to make our organization and our Special Improvement District, its property and business owners, its residents, and myself, stronger. Together.

Don’t do anything halfway on Main Street.

Doing anything halfway or at half-speed isn’t my style anyway, but I was told some things move slowly in Hackensack and could be a bit chaotic. Well, I’ve done business in places like Athens, Cairo, and Buenos Aires. I’ll show you slow and chaotic. Hackensack? This is easy. Plus, if you know anything about this city, you know it has gone through an amazing transformation. This is a testament to all the hard work done by the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, City Manager, Deputy City Manager, the City Council, and everyone involved in the redevelopment plan. Hackensack has come so far and improved so much. And there’s more coming!

So, you could say, my job in 2023 was to ride the wave and continue to push forward. But early on, it was apparent that seizing the moment and getting things done quickly, whatever the hurdles, was key. As an organization, we’re now making it work by building for the future every single day with every single project; be it this new, bilingual website or our new Main Street app. You know the saying “It takes a village”? Well, the dozens of people at City Hall I am fortunate enough to call my “partners” have banded together and helped the MSBA deliver very positive results for the restaurants, coffee shops, and other small businesses on Main Street in Hackensack.

Look ahead. Work towards the Vision.

2023 was the first, post-pandemic “normal” year and yet, it was still hard on so many people. The pandemic upended normal life – we all know that – and it caused incredible emotional, mental, and financial pressure, especially for small businesses. For me, working towards the MSBA vision also meant acknowledging that everyone was coming out of the pandemic in different ways and at different speeds. Most everyone working towards Hackensack’s future shares a similar hope and vision, though they may see different paths to get there. There’s no “one size fits all” in Hackensack, and that’s okay. Everyone wants the best for this great city of ours.

Partner Up!

In everything I’ve ever built in my life, I did it with the help of strategic partners. I find when you’re short on time, short on resources, and manpower, you feel alone in your quest. But, you’re not alone. There’s someone in an office someplace who needs to overcome the same challenges as you do. By partnering together on a project, you both get to your end goal and share in the spoils. Better yet, you get there faster, cheaper, and with less risk. Working at the MSBA has been no different. I’ve partnered with dozens of people including Fairleigh Dickinson University, the Chamber of Commerce, the Johnson Public Library, the HACPAC (Hackensack Performing Arts Center), the Hackensack Police Department, the Health Department, zoning officials, the DPW, the City Manager, and most of all, the Deputy City Manager.

Be Empathetic – Always.

I try to operate with empathy as my core foundation. I have a special-needs niece and she and my sister have taught me so much about life. Once when I was driving my sister to the pharmacy, a man walked in front of my car as I pulled into the lot. I cursed to no one in particular (hey, I’m from Jersey.) She said “John, look at him. What’s he carrying?” I said “Shopping bags?  I don’t know… What?” “Can’t you see he is carrying eight bottles of Pedialyte,” she said. “He’s got sick kids at home. Give him a break.”  I’ve carried this lesson with me every day. It’s about understanding, supporting, and recognizing the unseen challenges others may be facing. Two people in Hackensack live this rule every day: Julia Orlando, the Director of the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center, and Police Officer Revi, our most beloved ambassador to the Hackensack Police Department. They’re amazing human beings.

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way.

I’m just as comfortable driving a project as I am following and supporting someone who is. I even happily roll up my sleeves and jump into the weeds to overcome a hurdle. But my motion will always be forward. I’m not a big fan of sitting idle while time and opportunities fly by. But I’m even less of a fan of moving too slowly, or worse, moving backward. So, if you find yourself working on something with me, strap yourself in. It may get bumpy, but we’ll be moving forward, together.

The Details are in the Weeds.

I don’t ask anyone to do anything I haven’t done myself, at least once. I clean the MSBA office myself. No biggie, right? Well, when it came time to evaluate the sanitation services, I thought it would be unfair of me to judge pricing without understanding what really went into picking up trash. So, one day I enthusiastically did a small portion of the garbage route on Main Street, emptying cans, and hauling the bags to the truck. I did something similar with the landscaping crew. Let me tell you, keeping Main Street “Clean and Green” is no joke. I highly respect everyone on the “Clean and Green” team as well as all the City DPW staff.  

Ask Questions, Listen Intently, and Be Transparent.

How on earth could I put together a plan for Main Street without asking the opinions of our member businesses as well as the residents in Hackensack, including those exploring housing options in the new apartment rentals on or near Main Street? In addition to all the meetings in my first 90 days, I partnered with the leadership teams at the Chamber of Commerce and the award-winning Johnson Public Library to create a survey; and sent it out to thousands of residents and businesses asking them what they wanted to see on Main Street in the future. Within a week, we received over 1,400 responses and created Main Street’s first annual trend report.

The survey helped us check in with residents and businesses and understand the challenges facing them and, more broadly, what they wanted to experience on Main Street. People want more things to do in Hackensack, especially on Main Street. They want affordable and luxury apartments in Hackensack. And they want more places to eat in Hackensack. We’re now using that feedback to program events (like our very successful Hackensacktoberfest which saw thousands of visitors this year), solicit new businesses, and give feedback to existing businesses and property owners. The data is also helpful when we offer our members assistance with “marketing on Main Street” focused on small business tactics.

Forward movement, even in small increments, will help you improve from ‘Good’ to ‘Great’

If ever you find yourself saying “I don’t know,” well, that’s okay. There is much I don’t know, but I am grateful for the things that I do. We performed many tests in 2023, including in marketing, operations, and more. Sometimes you must run a test to see which path forward is the best, most efficient, and most responsible. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you learn. There is no failure.

I’m a better person, leader, and executive because of my experiences in 2023. I see the residents of Hackensack, our partners, our board, and everyone at City Hall for who they are – all members of a community who came together to make Main Street in Hackensack a better place. What an amazing group of people I find myself surrounded by.

I’ll leave you with one final thought; The TRUE magic on Main Street we’re all looking for is in the work we’ve yet to do!

Wishing you a happy and healthy 2024!

John T. Peters (if we’re not connected on LinkedIn, let’s fix that right now!)
Executive Director

This article has been tagged with: Special Improvement District
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